In my conversations with IT executives in higher education and other industries who have not yet moved completely to the cloud, the question is no longer ‘if ’ but ‘when’. Yet a few expressed reservations when it comes to their core systems. Those reservations are mostly based on fears around control, security, or simply change.
While higher education institutions have largely embraced the cloud for adjunct systems such as email and learning management systems, many colleges and universities are still in a ‘wait-and-see’ mode when it comes to ERP and student information systems.
"Institutions will no longer manage the applications, servers and network to focus more on their core mission, they will remain in control of their solutions similar to legacy systems"
But today there are enough institutions that have deployed their core systems in the cloud to gain some insight from their experience and perhaps dispel some of these fears.
Loss of control over core applications and systems often tops the list of fears for many institutions. But not all SaaS models are created equal. There are many ways to implement cloud solutions while ensuring high standards of security, flexibility, uptime, and elasticity, without surrendering control or access to your data.
The level of control really depends on your cloud or SaaS agreement. Depending on the level of administrative control you want, you may still be able to receive upgrades and refreshes on demand rather than having to conform to the vendor’s schedule. You should also be able to scale up or down based on variations or spikes in your institution’s yearly cycle, such as fall recruitment and registration, and still have direct access to your isolated data and environment.
Institutions such as Central Arizona College and Arkansas State University-Beebe, for example, recently procured a new cloud-based SIS, CRM, and ERP after decades of managing their legacy systems on premises. While the institutions will no longer manage the applications, servers and network to focus more on their core mission, they will remain in control of their solutions in much the same way they did with their legacy systems.
By now, most institutions should expect that the network and platform security standards of today’s cloud providers are the highest in the industry. These providers have the dedicated expertise, resources and staff to maintain that high standard. It’s their sole focus.
Arkansas State University-Beebe started by looking at the cloud providers’ data centers. “Are they up to our standards?” ASU-Beebe wanted to make sure the cloud provider had a better security footprint than it had on premises before moving mission critical apps to the cloud, and they did.
And what about the risk to the institution’s data when it’s hosted with many other institutions in the cloud? One expectation should be that the vendor implements your SaaS solutions in a single instance mode. This means having your own database where your data is isolated, protected, performance tuned, and not comingled with any other clients, which might increase the footprint and likeliness of attacks, downtime and data breaches. You should also have access to that database, be able to read those transactions, and integrate external systems. The vendor may be driving updates through APIs, but it’s still your data.
IT organizations are very accustomed to users resisting adoption and change. Institutions need to make sure their faculty and staff across the system are included early in the decision-making process and make them feel comfortable to ensure success on any new project. Ironically, for SaaS solutions, sometimes it is the IT organizations themselves that need to go over this process, where a high level of familiarity is required.
Some early adopters have been beating the cloud drum for quite some time, while other CIOs and leaders might still be skeptical or looking for the right opportunity to move to the cloud. In the end, the time for mainstream adoption of core systems in the cloud is here, and it is up to each institution to decide where to be on the curve of mainstream versus late adopters.
These types of transformations can significantly benefit institutions if they have system-wide support. Central Arizona College included representatives from all the key areas across the institution, including enrollment, student services, financial aid, finance, HR and faculty in their selection process. This not only ensured that the technical and business requirements were met, but that cultural adoption was promoted across the institution as well.
One of the main selling points to users is the fact that the cloud encourages the adoption of best practices. Because higher education is so open and willing to share good ideas with other institutions, cloud-based higher education solutions more often reflect these best practices and evolve with the needs of the industry.
In the end, institutions are gaining more than they are giving up, with the cloud. Many cloud vendors will cite the cost effectiveness of the cloud over maintaining systems on premises, but it’s more about being able to realign existing resources and IT staff with more mission-focused goals, such as transforming academic delivery, student success and operational efficiency.
“How can we improve academics?” “How can we optimize our resources around student retention and outcomes?” The cloud brings the focus back to higher education’s main mission. “How do we maintain this technology or ensure a virus doesn’t infect our systems again?” Let the cloud provider focus on that.